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What would you do if you were given this terrible airline seat?

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Consumer reporter and ombudsman

Have you ever wondered what the worst airline seat in the history of modern-day air travel looks like? Well, wonder no more! Aer Lingus passenger Matt Madrigal sat in it on a flight to Dublin.  

Madrigal endured the dirty “seat” with no cushion and exposed metal for his entire transatlantic flight to Ireland from the United States.

Ouch!

His mom is furious with the airline’s treatment of her son. And she wants to know if our advocacy team can help.

This case underscores the importance of learning how to self-advocate in real time. If you’re presented with a wholly unacceptable situation, it’s critical to voice those concerns at the time. If you don’t, you may endure unnecessary, unpleasant conditions that should have — and could have — been corrected immediately.

Editor’s Note:  I first reported on this awful excuse for an airline seat in 2018. This article was last updated on March 14, 2023, as it moves to its permanent archive home here at Consumer Rescue.  

Flying to Ireland in the worst airline seat

“The entire flight to Ireland, Aer Lingus made my son sit in the worst airline seat I’ve ever seen.” Janet Madrigal told me. “He sent me a picture of his seat. I had to ask him what the picture was — it didn’t even look like an airline seat.”

If you’re a regular reader of my column, you know I don’t typically mediate cases through a third party. 

Trying to advocate cases through a mom or a dad only complicates matters. I often discover that in their haste to defend their offspring, parents have blurred the facts. Or have missed critical components that can change how our advocacy team approaches the case. For these reasons, I always ask parents to have the adult child resubmit their own request. 

In most cases, we don’t ever hear from these “children.” 

In this situation, though, I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to see a photo of the worst airline seat — ever. But I guessed this might just be an overprotective mama bear defending her baby boy. I thought that she might be seeing this horrible airline seat through slightly biased eyes.

I was wrong.

Is this really a passenger seat on a commercial airliner?

This is the worst airline seat ever, with no cushion and exposed metal.

We have a winner: The worst airline seat. Ever. Hands down.

At first, I had trouble figuring out what I was looking at. But as my eyes focused, I agreed this was, hands down, the worst airline seat ever!

Madrigal’s assigned seat was just the shell of a seat — with a missing cushion and dirty plastic. I struggled to figure out how Aer Lingus could have allowed one of its passengers to endure this uncomfortable monstrosity posing as an airline seat.

I asked Janet Madrigal if her son had complained at the time. She explained:

He told me that the flight was boarding late, and there was a bunch of ‘over-served’ policemen going to the St. Patty’s Day parade abroad. He didn’t want to delay the flight any further and so he ‘took one for the team.’ He pulled some pillows down and made the best of it. He received a $50 voucher for Aer Lingus- which is, in my opinion, not acceptable.

Janet Madrigal to Michelle Couch-Friedman

Took one for the team? No one should have to take this one for the team. Her son, an inexperienced traveler, failed to understand the unacceptable nature of his situation. I joined Janet Madrigal in her outrage for her son and agreed that the $50 voucher was insufficient compensation.

But it was time to double-check all the facts with Matthew Madrigal. 

Passengers must speak up when something is wrong

I contacted Matthew Madrigal to find out what exactly happened on board this Aer Lingus flight. I was particularly interested in finding out how the flight attendants explained his horrendous seating arrangement. He reported:

The flight was two days previous to Saint Patrick’s Day, so naturally, the plane was full of intoxicated patrons. I asked the flight attendant what was going on with my seat when we were boarding. She asked me to sit in it until everyone was aboard and settled. 

Soon after everyone was on, I asked the flight attendant again. She told me she would get back to me. She never did. Once we took off, I could see I had no other option but to sit in that seat. There were no empty seats. Because the intoxicated patrons were extremely loud and disrespectful, the flight attendants were flustered.

Matthew Madrigal

In his attempt to be polite and easy-going, Madrigal had doomed himself to that uncushioned seat. If he had made his complaint firmly known on the ground, Aer Lingus would have been forced to fix the situation. Once the flight became airborne, the Aer Lingus flight attendants had no way to address this bizarre problem.

Madrigal’s story recalled another awful airline seat case I had tried to tackle recently. In that situation, JetBlue forced Sam Cristol to partially share his own airline seat with the man beside him. That man didn’t fit in his own seat and overflowed into Cristol’s. 

Unfortunately, Cristol also waited until his cross-country flight was already in the air before asking for assistance from the flight attendants. JetBlue placed a value for his inconvenience at $100 in the form of a voucher. And JetBlue lost a loyal customer in the end.

Aer Lingus responds with “a small gesture of goodwill.”

In this case, Madrigal (Or, I suspect, his mom did) had already complained to Aer Lingus and requested compensation.

The response from Aer Lingus was underwhelming.

Please accept my sincere apology for Aer Lingus not having met your expectations. I am very sorry for the inconvenience and disappointment resulting from your damaged seat on the flight.

Our maintenance crews regularly inspect aircraft to ensure onboard items such as seats, meal trays, entertainment systems, etc. are in working order. While ground time may limit their ability to inspect every item, normally, guests experiencing difficulties in-flight on the previous sector would inform cabin crew who in turn would report such items to the maintenance teams and repair would be made prior to departure. A copy of your comments will be forwarded to our Head office in Dublin for their review and internal handling.

While we cannot accede to your request for compensation, an e-voucher in the amount of $50.00, will be sent out under separate cover, as our gesture of goodwill.

Aer Lingus

A gesture of goodwill?

Aer Lingus forced Madrigal to sit in the shell of an airline seat for 7 hours. He paid $658 for this roundtrip flight from Chicago to Dublin. During half of that journey, Aer Lingus did not provide him with an acceptable airline seat by any standards.

The airline’s response did not sit right with me. I wondered if anyone at Aer Lingus had even looked at the photo.

Aer Lingus reconsiders its response

European law protects air travelers in a much more comprehensive way than US law. The EU 261 forces European airlines to compensate travelers who are involuntarily downgraded on flights to and from Europe. This compensation is at a rate of 75 percent of the one-way fare for a trip of this length.

Although the regulation does not address this particular scenario, I felt thatI could make a case that Aer Lingus had downgraded Madrigal to a sub-par (nonexistent) airline seat category.

I contacted Aer Lingus on Madrigal’s behalf and forwarded the photo. I requested that the airline compensate Madrigal further for this unusual circumstance.

After taking a look at that photo, our executive contact at Aer Lingus reconsidered Madrigal’s case. The airline offered him a $500 voucher on top of the previously offered $50.

Madrigal is pleased with this resolution, and in the future, he will undoubtedly make sure that any unacceptable situations are resolved before his flight leaves the ground.

What to do if an airline assigns you a terrible seat

It certainly isn’t common to be assigned a seat on a commercial aircraft as awful as the one Madrigal was given. But I have received quite a few requests for help in the past year from passengers who have been assigned partially functioning and fully broken business class seats

So what can you do if you find your seat completely unacceptable on your next flight? Here’s what to do if the airline assigns you a terrible seat.

Immediately alert the cabin crew

Even if the cabin crew is distracted by rowdy St. Patrick’s Day revelers on their way to Ireland, it’s critical to speak up. If parts of your seat are missing or something else appears amiss, immediately alert the cabin crew. Remember, the time to address these types of problems is while you’re still at the gate. But if you don’t tell anyone until the flight is airborne, you may just be stuck in the terrible seat until you arrive at your destination. 

Ask to be moved to another seat

Your first plan of action should be to ask to be moved and if there are no seats in your assigned cabin, you can request an upgrade. Especially if your seat on the aircraft presents a safety issue (such as a nonfunctioning safety belt or if the seat is stuck in an unusual position), you may get lucky and get an upgrade. 

Of course, the opposite might be true as well. If you’re in business class and get surprised with a subpar seat, the only option may be a downgrade. Note: If you accept a downgrade and your flight qualifies for EU 261 compensation, you can request a 75 percent refund for that leg of the journey (on transatlantic flights). 

Asked to be moved to another flight

If no upgrade is available and a downgrade isn’t something you want to consider, you can ask to be rebooked on a later flight. 

Again, if the EU 261 applies to your flight, the airline will have a “duty of care” to you. It will be required to provide you with food, beverages and a hotel (if you need to extend your stay overnight). You may also qualify for the EU 261 compensation for a canceled flight.

The bottom Line

Travelers, don’t be timid. If you’re faced with unacceptable and unsafe conditions on a flight, make sure to politely make your voice heard. Don’t suffer in silence and then complain to your mom about it later. The cabin crew can only help if you let them know there’s a problem. 

But if you’ve been unable to fix a problem with an airline despite your best efforts, send your plea for help to our advocacy team. We’re always ready to jump in and rescue consumers from troubling situations. (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer Rescue)

*Before you go: Here’s another vacation fiasco for you — a roaming charge nightmare!

Consumer Rescue

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Michelle Couch-Friedman is the founder and CEO of Consumer Rescue. She is a consumer advocate, ombudsman columnist, mediator, writer, and licensed psychotherapist. Michelle is a public speaker, and her expert guidance has been cited in MarketWatch, Consumer Reports, Travel & Leisure, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Popular Science, CNN, CNBC, Boston Globe, CBS News, National Geographic, Travel Weekly, Reader's Digest and more. You might even catch Michelle on TV reporting on a situation. :) Michelle is also the travel ombudsman columnist for The Points Guy and is the former executive director of the nonprofit Elliott Advocacy. During her six years in that position, she resolved thousands of cases for troubled travelers and other consumers. You can read hundreds of 5-star reviews Michelle earned during her service to the nonprofit since 2016 here on Great Nonprofits. She is also a member of the Society of American Travel Writers. Today, she continues to spend as much time as possible fiercely defending consumers and traveling the world with her family. Contact her at Michelle Couch-Friedman or on Linkedin, Twitter or Facebook.